Image depicting height definitions from Charlottesville's zoning code Credit: Credit: City of Charlottesville

After more than a year of study and discussion, the Charlottesville Planning Commission has recommended that the City Council approve an amendment to the city’s zoning code that would change the way building heights are calculated.

“It’s been an important issue for a long time but it’s only becoming more urgent as more and more people want to actually pursue larger developments in the city,” said Lisa Robertson, deputy city attorney.

The recommendations come at a time when the commission and other advisory groups continue to review the city’s development rules. This involves the update of the city’s Comprehensive Plan and a legal review of the zoning code, both of which are expected to be completed next year.

“Right now, we have a height measurement emergency, and I am offering a couple of recommendations for your consideration in the interim,” Robertson said.

At issue is a conflict between two sections of the zoning code.

In one, height is defined as “the distance measured from grade level to the highest point” of a building.

Another section states that height is to be calculated “by measuring separately the average height of each building wall, then averaging them together.”

Robertson said the latter conflicts with the first and can result in buildings that are higher than the limits specified for individual zoning districts.

“What I’m recommending are changes that would specify very directly that buildings have to comply with the minimum and maximum height regulations in the zoning district,” she said.

Robertson said her recommendation would be a good short-term measure until the full review of city development guidelines is completed.

“It may not be the place you want to stay for another decade if you want to promote different types of development in different type of conditions,” Robertson said. “We’ve got to work through it and somehow make it more user-friendly because this is stuff that staff has to interpret and the city attorney’s office has to be able to figure it out.”

Several groups have weighed in on the proposed changes including the Southern Environmental Law Center and the Charlottesville Area Development Roundtable.

“We all want to come up with a resolution that works for the building height issue,” said Ashley Davies, a planner with law firm Williams Mullen and a member of CADRe.

One of Davies’ clients is the Charlottesville Technology Center, proposed for the site of the to-be-demolished Main Street Arena.

“That has been under review for several months and [we have] been working with staff to make sure the building we design is very context-sensitive and is actually meeting the current definition of building height,” Davies said. “We don’t want to be caught in a situation where the building height definition changes mid-stream for our project.”

Valerie Long, an attorney with Williams Mullen who is also working on the project, said the grade of Water Street drops 19 feet along the span of the proposed building, making it potentially difficult to establish a height under the proposed change. She said averaging the height provides for flexibility in a hilly city.

“The averaging enables that building to be context-sensitive and account for that dramatic change in grade,” Long said. “I’m concerned that this definition, by not taking averaging or differences in grade into account, will result in a significant impact on the height of that building.”

However, Robertson said her recommendation is to revert the code to a previous iteration that did not call for averaging building heights.

“We made it work for a really long time before 2008 or so,” Robertson said. “The term ‘height’ referring to a vertical distance measured from grade to the highest point of a building is the way the city measured height for decades.”

After a public hearing, the Planning Commission discussed whether the recommendations made sense.

“Is the general public going to understand this?” asked Chairwoman Lisa Green. “Or are we going to have to hire one of these professionals every time we do something?”

One commissioner voted against the recommendations in part because he felt the Charlottesville Technology Center shouldn’t be held to a different standard than recent construction projects.

“I’ve never been in a ‘height measurement emergency’ before so I don’t exactly know what the safety protocols are,” quipped Kurt Keesecker. “We have been talking about height for a long time. It feels like the emergency has come on because of one application at the ice park.”

Robertson said her concerns about the discrepancies in the zoning code predate the application of the Charlottesville Technology Center and that the emergency is due to a sense that there are vulnerabilities in the code.

“We keep not taking action and the next application comes in and the next one comes in,” she said. “We’ve been living with some really terrible ordinance provisions for close to two decades now.”

Keesecker sought to delay implementation of the new rules, but other commissioners wanted to move forward.

“We have let everybody and their brother look at this,” Commissioner John Santoski said. “PLACE, CADre and anybody else who wants to comment on height. We keep kicking the can down the road to let somebody else look at this. At some point, we do have to make a decision, and we just did.”

The matter will go before the City Council in the near future.